staff, December 6, 2014

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Inspired by their experiences in college and elsewhere, these Pathfinders are passing by the typical, well-trod career paths and blazing their own trails. We?ll explore the unconventional approaches these Big Ten alums are taking to work.

[btn-post-package]While a student at the University of Wisconsin, a few important developments prompted Jake Wood to serve his country in some of the world?s most dangerous places and become co-founder and CEO of Team Rubicon, a unique disaster-response organization that leverages veterans as volunteers.

The first was the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

?I was a freshman when 9/11 happened,? he said. ?I watched both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars from my dormitory.?

The second reason was not as grave as the first. Wood, who played offensive tackle for the Badgers football team, realized during his freshman year that he probably wasn?t going to achieve his dream of making it to the NFL.

?I was pretty [bad] at football,? he explained.

He was also strongly influenced by the example set by Pat Tillman, a football player with the Arizona Cardinals who walked away from millions of dollars to enlist in the military and was killed by friendly fire in 2004 while serving in Afghanistan.

All those factors led Wood to join the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating in 2005. He was assigned to a unit in Southern California that was deployed to Iraq?s Anbar Province in 2007. After his squad leader was wounded just two weeks into the deployment, Wood was promoted to corporal and placed in charge of the squad.

?The [military offensive] surge was just coming into full swing,? he said. ?The violence was really high. For seven months, we were running counterinsurgency patrols trying to stabilize the villages we were in. It was pretty nasty.?

Following that deployment, he had the opportunity to join a scout sniper platoon, an elite unit within the Marine Corps. After he graduated from sniper school at the top of his class, he returned to the heart of another conflict - the Helmand Valley in southern Afghanistan.

?Again, that was a really tough tour,? he said. ?[I was] working on a six-man scout-sniper team in areas that were pretty heavily controlled by Taliban.?

When his four-year contract ended, Wood left the military.

?Between the two tours I?d done, we?d lost about 31 men and about 10 times that wounded,? Wood said. ?I had all my fingers and all my toes, which was not always a certainty. I just felt like I?d done my time. [I] was proud of the service I?d done, but I didn?t want war to be everything about life, so I decided to get out.?

Wood thought he would be leaving that life behind for good. He was planning to pursue an MBA and an accomplished - yet also somewhat conventional - career in Corporate America.

?I didn?t leave the military thinking I was going to start a disaster-response organization,? he said. ?I thought the military was going to help me in my professional career. I was a better leader. I was more disciplined. I was all of those things you might expect a military veteran to be. I thought that would just make me a better investment banker or a better consultant.?

However, the trajectory of his life changed when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 12, 2010. The disaster killed hundreds of thousands of people and left nearly 1 million Haitians homeless.

He dropped everything and posted a call to help on Facebook, which he described as a ?pretty humble beginning.? But a few people responded to that first call to action: Wood and seven other veterans and first-responders gathered money and supplies and flew to the Dominican Republic, where they rented a truck and headed to Haiti, according to Team Rubicon?s Web site. Over the next few weeks, almost 60 volunteers had joined the effort.

?When we started Team Rubicon, it was by accident,? Wood said. ?We just went to Haiti to help, and along the way discovered there was a real opportunity to develop an organization. It was an idea that was inspiring for a lot of people.?

Since then, growth and opportunities for the organization have continued more or less without cessation.

?It?s been a five-year scramble just to keep programs up and running,? he said. ?Hopefully, it slows down soon. I need to do a better job of getting eight hours of sleep every night.?

Team Rubicon currently has more than 20,000 veterans volunteering. Many are post-9/11 veterans, but there are some whose service dates back to the Korean War.

?They?ve performed a broad array of functions in the worst situations imaginable, far worse than most disaster zones,? Wood said. ?[They?re] qualified and experienced candidates who are coming back and many of them are not necessarily ready to stop serving their country.?

The organization has run 75 missions to date, including one this year in Pateros, Wash., which was terribly affected by a wildfire. More than 250,000 acres and 300 homes were destroyed. Team Rubicon received the delegation of authority from the town?s mayor, which meant the city handed over all responsibility for the response effort, according to Wood.

?We provided every function of a disaster response effort for the city,? he said. ?It was a pretty cool moment for us. It was the first time we had received that level of commitment from a community.?

Even though Team Rubicon has been in high gear for the past few years, Wood believes it can go much further.

?We?ve got a lot of growth ahead of us,? Wood said. ?We are never satisfied. We are a very hungry organization. We think we are building an organization that can be here 100 years from now. [We] just [want to] keep kicking ass.?

Team Rubicon has a singular culture and philosophy. It?s not just about bringing your dogs to work or the free beer in the Kegerator, although those are nice perks. The organization has four codified values (and, in keeping with the notoriously profane language of the military, each one contains an expletive):

  • See sh*t that needs to get done.
  • Get sh*t done.
  • Thrive when sh*t hits the fan.
  • Avoid bullsh*t.

?We don?t just throw four nice-sounding words on the wall like integrity and respect,? Wood explained. ?Those are just given. You better have integrity if you are going to work for us. If you don?t, then you are going to get fired pretty quickly.?

While leading Team Rubicon is rarely easy, Wood finds it inspiring and invigorating. Even if that means getting eight hours of sleep a night is a distant hope.

?When I look at [the] careers some of my colleagues have taken, I sometimes struggle to imagine what that would be like for me,? he said. ?I just don?t know that it would be as fulfilling or as exhilarating as what we?re doing, building [this] organization. There are just so many challenges that are so unique. There?s never a dull moment.?

By Lindsay Wickman